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Michael Sean WintersApril 11, 2010

The whole world now knows about Father Stephen Kiesle of Oakland, the priest who tied up young boys and molested them sexually and whose request to be defrocked came before then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The press is swarming with assertions that, as the Washington Post headlined its story, "Future pope balked at defrocking priest." This, we are led to believe, is the smoking gun. Raztinger signed the letter in 1985. That is HIS signature. Case closed. Here are the documents.

In talking to reporters, I raised the question: Why was this case in front of Ratzinger in the first place. It does not make sense. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was given jurisdiction over cases of the "graviora delicta" of sexual abuse only in 2001. Before that time, it is a bit unclear who had immediate jurisdiction in Rome, although one point – which I also made to reporters – went unmentioned then and in all the reporting about the future Pope’s role in handling sex abuse cases, namely, the local bishop has the authority to remove a priest from the clerical state. Recourse to Rome is necessary only to dispense a priest from his vow of celibacy, so that he can subsequently be married in the Church.

Perhaps, some of the confusion has to do with the translation from Latin that the original AP story procured from the chairman of the Classics Department at USC which translates "Hoc dicasterium" as "this court." I do not question the Chairman of the Classics Department’s command of Latin, but a dicastery in the Vatican is not a court, but an agency or department. The CDF did not then and does not now serve as a canonical court.

But, then it hit me: I was asking about the dog that had not barked. The documents exchanged between the diocesan officials in Oakland and the CDF do not mention "graviora delicta." The case was presented as a priest seeking laicization. As well, the documents do not paint the profound ugliness of the priest’s crimes. The first document posted at the Times is a 1981 letter from a parish priest who worked with Kiesle. It says that Kiesle lacked "maturity and responsibility and spirituality" and says he only became a priest to please his over-bearing mother. The second document, also from 1981 and also from a priest who worked with Kiesle, says that Kiesle’s family was opposed to his becoming a priest and claims that Kiesle was irresponsible and had trouble relating to adults. The letter refers to "the eventual difficulty that Father Kiesle had with the law because of his relationship to young children" but there are no details.

The third document finally is explicit. In the "Votum Episcopi," the document by which the bishop demonstrates his support for Father Kiesle’s request for laicization, Bishop John Cummins notes that Kiesle had been arrested for molesting six boys, had pleaded "nolo contendere" and received a three-year suspended sentence. Three facts jump out. First, the request for defrocking was made by Father Kiesle, not by the bishop. Second, the priest had already been removed from active ministry, so the case did not seem urgent insofar as protecting children in the future was concerned (remember, Kiesle was only asking CDF to dispense him from his vows). Third, the response from and punishment by the civil authorities were not as severe as the crime warranted. As we now know, very few people understood the nature of pedophilia, otherwise civil authorities would not have imposed a three- or five-year statute of limitations, and the penalties for what amounted to rape would have been more severe. It turns out that the emotional scars of sex abuse are worse than physical scars of physical abuse, not least because they are often unseen.

One other part of Cummins’s letter to Cardinal Ratzinger seems to have escaped the attention of the assembled press corps. The bishop notes that the trial generated "a great deal of publicity surrounding his conduct." The bishop says that all the local papers covered the story. So, the idea that Cardinal Raztinger subsequently dragged his feet to avoid publicity is an odd charge, one that the documents do not support. When Cardinal Ratzinger replied that the "good of the universal Church" should be considered in adjudicating the case, he was evidently not trying to prevent adverse publicity. That publicity had already occurred.

What, then, was Ratzinger’s concern? Why did he not simply grant Father Kiesle’s request for laicization and be done with it? As noted above, the extraordinary nature of Father Kiesle’s crimes is not at all clear from the correspondence, which uses euphemisms to describe what amounted to child rape. The weak punishment by the civil authorities certainly would not indicate the outrages this priest perpetrated. Additionally, the initiative is coming from the priest, not from the bishop, as one might expect in a case of this sort.

Another factor explaining Ratzinger’s invocation of the "good of the universal Church" was a change of policy going on at the Vatican in the early 1980s. In the years after the Council, many priests asked to be laicized. George Weigel, in his biography of Pope John Paul II, writes: "Pope Paul VI had granted more than 32,000 requests from priests who had asked to be released from their vows and returned to lay status – the greatest exodus from the priesthood since the Reformation. Soon after his election, John Paul had stopped the routine granting of these ‘decrees of laicization.’" John Paul was especially concerned about younger priests seeking to be defrocked, and very few such requests were granted to priests under the age of 40. It is telling that Father Kiesle’s request for laicization was granted as soon as he did turn 40.

What had Pope John Paul, and Cardinal Ratzinger, worried was that the sacramental character of priestly ordination was being obscured by the ease with which priests were being dispensed from their vows. Catholics do not see the priesthood as a career choice, to be set aside if something better comes along. When a man is ordained, the Church believes that God affects an ineffaceable and permanent change upon the ordinand, just as the Church believes that bread and wine are truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass. Even a priest who is laicized retains the power to say Mass and absolve from sins in confession, even though the Church strips him of the authority to do so.

Had the Oakland case been presented as an instance of "graviora delicta" I do not doubt that the laicization would have been faster. Had the bishop or other officials in Oakland made clear the heinous nature of the crimes, I do not doubt Cardinal Ratzinger would have responded differently. I also do not doubt that even the mention of the civil trial involving charges of molestation should have caused Cardinal Ratzinger to find out more about the case - oops, that is precisely what he did and for which he now stands accused of dragging his feet. I also suspect that this case, which stands astride the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, may have been impeded because the canonical officials in Oakland and in Rome were still becoming acquainted with its provisions.

It is the job of religion reporters to not only report on information but to provide the context for interpreting that information. The documents in the Oakland case raise certain obvious questions that the press ignores or fails to perceive – I do not know which is worse. I do not "blame" the media for the sex abuse crisis and I do blame the Vatican for doing such a horrendous job of answering the current questions and for seeing themselves as the victim. Nonetheless, I believe the press corps is guilty of shoddy reporting. The documents in the Oakland case are no "smoking gun" but they are presented as such. The feeding frenzy among the press corps has taken hold and everybody wants to be Woodward and Bernstein. Shame on them.

Michael Sean Winters

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Jim McCrea
14 years 2 months ago
It's becoming patently and uncomfortable clear that the hierarchy of this church has been caught with its moral (and literal) pants down without a justifiable defense.
Time for wagon-circling, running in circles, screaming the shouting.  What's next:  calling Catholics who continue to not let sleeping dog lie, heretics?
Sorry boyz, you can't burn folks at the stake anymore.
Eugene Pagano
14 years 2 months ago
You have greatly clarified this; make the point also on your blog for NCR Today.
My hunch from the news report and from the letter signed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger was that the case was being handled as the priest's request for laicization rather than a bishop's effort to have him involuntary laicized.
The episode, however, shows how poorly the Vatican is doing at explaining its procedures to the media.
David Nickol
14 years 2 months ago
I just do not buy your theory that in 1981, people (including Cardinal Ratzinger) did not understand the seriousness of the sexual abuse of boys by priests and that a three-year suspended sentence and three years of probation somehow gave the impression that Fr. Kiesle's crimes weren't of much significance. 
Carolyn Disco
14 years 2 months ago
The continual parsing of damaging information about Benedict is tiresome and offensive. Sorry, all the hyperdistinctions fail.
See responses at dotCommonweal at http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=7786&cpage=2#comment-70046 to what most find “one of the weakest defenses of then-Cardinal Ratzinger” yet.
Posted by David Nickol on April 11th, 2010 at 7:20 pm
One wonders what the reaction would have been in 1981 to anyone (priest or layman) who admitted in the confessional that he had molested six boys ages 11 to 13. Even if criminal penalties were too lenient in 1981, that would hardly have influenced the Church on the moral gravity of such behavior. My Catholic education took place in the 1950s and early 1960s, and I never got the impression that the Church tolerated any sexual activity between two males, let alone sexual activity between a priest and 11- to 13-year-old boys.
Carolyn Disco
14 years 2 months ago
Posted by Alan C. Mitchell on April 11th, 2010 at 8:09 pm
You are right about MSW’s reading of the documents regarding the Kiesle case. What he describes as the euphemistic nature of Bishop Cummin’s votum, does not diminish the seriousness of the charges for which Kiesle was convicted when he pleaded nolo contendere.
Cummins says clearly that Kiesle was charged with molesting six boys. Trying to separate that from the request for laicization on the basis of psychological maturity, simply because the language of graviors delicta was not invoked, appears to me to be simply special pleading.
Furthermore, MSW does not account for Cummins’ careful language aimed at protecting himself in the eyes of the Vatican. In the end none of what the bishop wrote about the young priest, his co-operation with therapy, his placement with a young priest to supervise him, or his attempt at employment were deemed mitigating enough for the bishop not to have drawn the obvious conclusion that he stressed first in the votum and then a year later in a letter to Ratzinger:
Kiesle should be removed from the clerical state. The repeated message of the possibility of grave scandal would have indicated the urgency of the situation. In my opinion, it would have been clear to Ratzinger that this was no ordinary petition for laicization.
Judy Jones
14 years 2 months ago
OK.. picture this:  you are a priest, and you walk passed a bedroom in the rectory where an adult priest is sexually abusing a child....
Give me a break, if you do NOT know that is wrong.........................  !! Even if it was in the 1800's. You are lying..
This has happened way too many times................
Survivors, if you have been sexually abused by any catholic clergy...pls contact police..
a crime has been committed against you
Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director.... 'Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests'
Stephen SCHEWE
14 years 2 months ago
Michael, someone once said about the press that you can't blame them for what they do, just as you can't blame a dog for peeing on a fire hydrant.  They're doing what comes naturally at this stage of a scandal, and shaming them, as you've attempted to do at the end of several recent posts, doesn't work. (Your continuing desire to shame others is a bit curious, by the way).  The press and the lawyers aren't going to go away until they believe there's no news and no plaintiffs left.  That will happen sooner if the Church admits to everything, including incidents with other survivors that are still undisclosed; comes to comprehensive settlements with all plaintiffs; and continues to live into its program of apologies and reforms.  Better PR would help, changes in ecclesiology might help, but they're not going to make the scandal go away.  Whether Benedict XVI is "guilty" of something at this point becomes less relevant by the day; as the pope and as a member of the church's senior leadership for decades, he is the accountable, visible symbol for the church's worldwide response to this scandal.  Mismanagement isn't an excuse.  Resolving these matters will be very expensive, and if the situation in the U.S. is any indication, it's going to take many bitter years to play itself out worldwide.
14 years 2 months ago
I do not think that the post fully reflects the documents.
The first document does more than saying that Kiesle lacked "maturity and responsibility and spirituality" and that he only became a priest to please his over-bearing mother. It also speaks about some improprieties while he was serving as deacon in that parish.
The "second letter" says explictly that while Father Crespin was away from the parish, Father Kiesle became "involved in questionable relationships with young children". It also states that the Acta must have sufficient information and that this is the reason why more details are not provided. If, as MSW seems to believe the ODF did not have information, this was at least a hint that they should have asked for more.  
The letter from Bishop Cummings does not say that Kiesle had been removed from active ministry: he had only been asked to take one year off. The letter also clearly states that when Kiesle had been asked to take special appointments with not direct pastoral involvement, he refused to do so. 
I really do not know how much we should blame the Pope on this one, and to tell the truth I really do not care too much. But it seems to me that the New York Times is doing at least as good a job at reporting that MSW at posting.
John Shuster
14 years 2 months ago
There has been so much secrecy and lack of transparency in the Vatican's internal handling of sex abuse cases over the years that a wonderful new PR strategic opportunity has been created and many are trying it out. Vatican officials or anyone who wants to explain away Ratzinger's documented timeline responses to dealing with abusive priests can now redact history and confabulate explanations as to why he is not really responsible. You can say whatever you want to build a positive story, and who's to know the difference? Create something positive to counteract all the negative evidence. The polls here in the States and in the EU are showing that this strategy is not working. I don't know how you are going to get out of this tail spin. The details and documentation against the Vicar of Christ on earth are too convincingly specific and widely disseminated on the Internet. All of this ''petty gossip'' is only going to grow with each day and fuel even greater negative consequences to Ratzinger's ability to provide credible governance. This is history in the making.
Don Taylor
14 years 2 months ago
I don't know, I think that the press coverage may not be having much effect. People I've asked about it (non-Catholics or lapsed Catholics) are either ignorant of the news reports, or simply ignore them. One even used the phrase ''it's about the Pope - if it's still in the news six months from now then I'll believe it''. Newspapers are dying, few people read them, and of those that do read them there seems to be an understanding that news media outlets are there to sell a product - not to intelligently inform the public. Lastly, people will believe what they are inclined to believe when it comes to news reports concerning religion, politics and the economy. The quality of the reporting likely has little effect.
14 years 2 months ago
We're lucky to have investigative reporting like that done by the Boston Globe and the NYT.  And thanks  Carolyn Disco for your informative comments on this  subject  posted here at America and at dotCommonweal.
Thomas Piatak
14 years 2 months ago
Thanks for posting this.  You may also wish to look at Phil Lawler's analysis of this case at Catholic Culture.
Edward Burton
14 years 2 months ago
The greatest problem I can see in this matter lies with the American diocese. In the correspondence with the Vatican the nature of Kiesle's conduct was not made clear. "involved in questionable relationships with young children" is very clear to us today, but to an uninformed reader "questionable relationships" could be shielding children from juvenile authorities, interfering in parent-child situations too much on the child side, etc. As a prosecutor at one time with authority for juvenile drug and alcohol offenses, it would have been very possible for me to have an inappropriate relationship with a juvenile having nothing to do with sex. A local sheriff was recently prosecuted for shielding a young man from the consequences for burglary because the youth had been a project of his in a helping and teaching way without any element of sex, a sort of big-brother thing. Even at the very last the matter was presented to CDF not as the Bishop trying to fire him, but as the Kiesle wanting out, Kiesle's petition to be laicized.
And a slap on the wrist from the Court on a nolo contendere is not a flag to someone unfamiliar with American courts in those days.
John McGuinness
14 years 2 months ago
  The cost is great when we shift our attention from the Vatican to the victims of these horrific deeds that were done to them by the people they trusted most. 
Do you really think the current frenzy is directing our attention to the victims as opposed to the Vatican? 
How do these innocent persons whose lives have been destroyed by religious men feel when they read articles that try to lessen the blame that is rightfully placed on the highest levels of the Catholic Church?  
I don't know.  How do you suppose they feel when their abuse is used as a tool by others with an axe to grind against the bishops?
John McGuinness
14 years 2 months ago
One more note - are the victims really served by a story that is not grounded in fact?  Just as we Catholics do owe a debt of gratitude to NYT and the Boston Globe to bringing the child sex abuse problem to light, could be not also say that abuse victims owe commentators like MSW a debt of gratitude for ensuring that accusations are credible, and that the cause of justice is not associated with flimsy reporting, so that their witness is not dismissed?
If MSW is right about Benedict's involvement, are the victims really served by him being taken down anyway?
Marie Tupper
14 years 2 months ago
I would like to know the excuse for not defrocking the priest, Thomas M. Lee, in the case of molesting about a dozen children including my 3 year old son!  A so-callled Tribunal of several peer priests tried to dismiss it as "inappropriate" but Bishop Malone sent it back to the Vatican and STILL NOTHING!  There has been feet-dragging for 7 years!  The media can't be blamed for this!
David Nickol
14 years 2 months ago
Edward Burton,
You seem to have skipped over an important document.
"In August of 1977 he was arrested by the police and accused of taking sexual liberties with at least six young men ranging from eleven to thirteen years of age during the period of November of 1977 through May of 1978." Also, three years' probation, therapy, prohibition against being alone with youths, registration with local police department. This is all very clear, and not just in retrospect.
Jim McCrea
14 years 2 months ago
 ''Pope did what was proper, in the context of the circumstances and of the times'' is a headline we'll never see.
And we won't see that headline until someone can prove that a lack of common sense, concern for the victims and the self-preservation of clericalism were and are "proper" in the context of ANY circumstances!
No wonder the press and the rest of the world simply shakes their heads in total disbelief!  This church is way beyond the laughingstock stage of things and is well down the road to abject shamelessness.
Does anyone still believe that the Holy Spirit has anything to do with this organization?
john klemick
14 years 2 months ago
Yes, I believe with my whole heart that the Holy Spirit is the vitalprinciple of Christ's Mystical Body, his Church.
The mission of the Church Christ founded on Peter is to bring salvationto all men, since it is the New Covenant family of God.  The Father sentthe Son to save us sinful sons of Adam, and the Son sent the Spirit to makeus a new creation in Christ and heirs to eternal life as adopted childrenof God, so that we cry out "Abba Father".
Christ is the Head of the Church, which is why it is holy.  But He alwaysworks through sinful men.  As he is divine and human, true God and true man,so his Church, his Mystical Body, is divine and human.
So long as the wheat and the tares grow together in the Church, sin and itsdevastating effects will be with us, as is so tragically apparent now.  And so we can all identify with Peter when he said "Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man".  But Christ, did not depart from him, and He does not depart from his Church despite our sinfullness.
In fact, we only have hope because we hope not in any human member of Christ's Body but in Christ, who passed from death to life so that we who were dead to sin might have life through him.
And we sinners who are transformed by his loving mercy attempt once again by his grace like St. Francis to rebuild his Church.  The Holy Father is leading the way with the help of the Holy Spirit, and since I wish to be where Christ wants me to be, I am with Peter (Mt 16:18-19).
Robert Hyde
14 years 2 months ago
One correction, Mr. Winters, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a tribunal and does hear canon law cases, for heresy and things like sex abuse by clerics.  It handles laicizations and other things administratively.
Normally, in a penal case of sex abuse the CDF with set up a tribunal in the local diocese and its tribunal (the Feria Quarta) will function as an appellate tribunal.  Some sex abuse cases are handled administratively when the proof is judged overwhelming and so no trial is necessary.
Carolyn Disco
14 years 2 months ago
Commonweal's Grant Gallicho shreds MSW's anaysis here:
Aloysia Moss
14 years 2 months ago
Take a look at our laws .  Children have no rights for all intents and purposes .  Even in the church ! 
In church circles euphemisms were the order of the day . Perhaps even now .  Even so any grown adult understood their meaning .  In convents Particular Friendship meant Lesbianism , for example .
All involved in the committing of the crimes and all the authorities who dealt with them knew exactly what was going on .  I think Bishop Cummins played by the rules as best he could .  The slap on the wrist by the secular powers could not possibly have had any bearing on the CDF ' s decision re Kiesle .
Joseph Ratzinger is not a fool .  But he may have been driven by pressure to have fewer indults granted . He wasn't  top man on the totem pole .
As Archbishop he delegated power to others who failed to keep him in  the loop regarding predator -priests in his own diocese . Was he poorly served ? I don't know .
Our centering on "superiors " of any sort has skewed the thinking of us all .  We are in mute adoration of "authority " and the little ones of whom Jesus spoke so eloquently are dismissed by our hard hearts .

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